Men with Lit Matches
In the spring of 1950, in the basement of the UCLA library, Ray Bradbury recorded the future on a coin-operated typewriter by typing out what would become Fahrenheit 451, a novel about a not-so-distant tomorrow without education, without discomfort, and without books. It was science fiction at its best, and still is. The only problem is that it’s also pretty damning commentary about life in the twenty-first century: a century where education is in peril, personal comfort is the end-all-be-all of government action, and the value of books has been lost in the pursuit of technological distractions.
Fahrenheit 451 revolves around the job of firemen in the future. Gone are the days when they show up to put out fires. Rather, they are dispatched to homes where books are hidden so that the homes, and the books inside them, can be burnt to ashes. This is as much a part of the education of the future as it is a denial of the education of the past. The destruction of the books is intended to leave the citizens in a comfortable, ignorant bliss.
When Bradbury wrote in 1950, he foresaw a future of immediacy. One where the occupants of American homes lived lives surrounded by technological advances that not only kept them too occupied to think, but also kept citizens from considering alternatives to staring at big screens in a daze: alternatives like book reading or serious contemplation.
Thrown in with the technological distractions, Bradbury also painted a picture of the use of drugs to keep ourselves sedated: the image being that we are numbed by the pills so we pass through this life complacently.
Reading Fahrenheit 451 in an age when we medicate to sleep, to eat less, to reduce anxiety, to give ourselves more energy, or to reduce our hyper-energy, is timely to say the least. For as the twenty-first century American reads this book, odds are he is reading about himself or about someone he may know quite well.
Regarding education, Bradbury saw it becoming more and more about control and less and less about learning. Thus he wrote, “School will be shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.”
Ironically, a decade after Bradbury typed those words radicals began infiltrating the education system in America in an effort to change it from the inside out. As a result of their efforts, school buildings today often resemble prisons that can be placed in lockdown. Corporal discipline is no longer allowed, rigorous courses have been, by and large, discarded, history is undervalued, and any ties to truly classical education have long vanished. But the students all have their smart phones with them to keep them company: phones which allow them to walk the halls of their schools with music playing in their ears, or which allow them to watch YouTube videos in between classes (if not during class), or which provide thousands of video games students can play to keep their minds from contemplating reality.
In addition to these things, Bradbury saw a future in which we keep ourselves so busy that, even when we aren’t hampered by the technology, the medication, or the absence of books, we are too busy to give our plight serious consideration. In Fahrenheit 451 this was accomplished by creating an environment for the children where there were “more sports for everyone, group spirit, [and] fun,” so they didn’t “have to think.” Gone were the days when a boy played baseball throughout the summer and then football in the fall if he so chose. Come instead were the days we see presently, where a boy is playing two or three sports at the same time throughout nine or ten months of the year, and where the regular games during the week are complemented by tournaments on the weekends that occupy all day Saturday and Sunday as well.
There is no organized Christianity in the future that Bradbury portrays in Fahrenheit 451, as Bibles, like all other books, are banned. If it exists at all, it exists only in the minds of those few who had memorized so much of the book that they could literally recall massive portions of the book for others upon request.
As a matter of fact, Bradbury depicts a group of men who dwell outside the city limits, and therefore hopefully outside the purview of the fire department, and they are society’s unappreciated link to the past: they are those who spend all their time networking with men who had memorized large portions of books, and in some cases entire books, before the ban was put in place. When these men are discovered by Montag, the central figure in Bradbury’s book, some forego introducing themselves by their Christian names and introduce themselves instead by the names of the books they represent. Their leader, Granger, introduces them thus:
I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Bradbury’s description of a future in which we now live, in so many ways, is as incredible as it is troubling. Yet it is not without hope. For in Fahrenheit 451, Montag, a fireman dedicated to the destruction of books wherever they’re found, is exposed to truth, and the truth shakes him from his culturally induced stupor.
Montag’s seminal moment takes place as he and his fellow firemen are burning down a house that contains books, and the homeowner, rather than leave her books behind, stands among them determined to be burned with them as a witness to their value. Before she burns, she quotes from the English Reformers about whom she’d read: “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!”
From that early point onward, Fahrenheit 451 shows Montag on a quest for truth. And he, the destroyer of books, becomes a hoarder of the same, until even his fellow firemen turn on him and burn his house to the ground in their sheer intolerance of learning.
Like so many of Bradbury’s works, Fahrenheit 451 is priceless. And it bolsters perfectly the point that Russell Kirk made when he wrote, “Bradbury’s stories are not an escape from reality; they are windows looking upon enduring reality.” But this reality is under assault by myriads of people who fit the descriptions Bradbury uses to describe the firemen in his book.
Fifty years after writing it, Bradbury talked of how publishers had wanted to whittle it down, to take out the parts that were offensive to postmodern sensibilities, and to remove “every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito [and] . . . every image that would have demanded so much as one instant’s attention.” To these changes Bradbury said “no.” And to his readers Bradbury wrote, “The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Sadly, many of these people are holding their lit matches in rooms full of an ignorance that is as combustible as gasoline.
A. W. R. Hawkins is senior opinion editor and writer for the Alliance Defense Fund and will be adjunct professor of history at Norwich University this fall.
Posted: June 6, 2012
‘Spoken with Sufficient Seriousness’
James V. Schall, S. J.